Film Review: On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo)

by Mara Norman

An important feature of Hong Sang-soo’s film, told in two parts, is the delicate expression of mood and pacing. The film follows the main character Young-hee played by Kim Min-hee (who won best actress for this role at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival) visiting friends at a sea side city. Her character very much floating in a limbo space of ungroundedness and longing. She is searching for a place to land after the end of a brief romantic relationship. 

The first part of the film begins in what feels like mid-conversation, two women stand on a balcony of an apartment. Young-hee is visiting a friend, asking advice and asking if she should come to live in the town and suggesting that maybe even the two become roommates. Young-hee, an actress on a self-imposed sabbatical, is at a loss for what to do next; she is trying to give order to her life. The pacing slows everything down; an invitation towards openness, to see and feel the space after the action, witnessing the aftermath of the break-up.

In the second part of the film, she is alone at a film festival. As she exits an empty film she runs into an acquaintance who begins to grill her. He questions her in an almost aggressive way about what is going on with her life. This part of the film explores the awkwardness of how people relate to one another--the limitations of translating emotions into communication. The film explores the power dynamics between colleagues, acquaintances, friendship and gossip. This is the beauty and strength of Hong Sang-soo’s filmmaking; he gently moves the viewer into witnessing basic everyday occurrences and conversations. We witness the intricacies that take place during cigarette breaks, long drunken dinners, awkward cups of coffee, walks in a park, visiting tourist attractions, lonely film festivals and cold grey walks on the beach at night alone. Sang-soo’s strength as an artist is how he can capture unexplained nuanced emotion through symbolic gestures and dialogue.

In both parts an unknown unnamed figure in a black pea coat and seaman’s knitted cap looms as an unwanted observer. In the first part as a creepy aggressor instigating conversation and attention from the women. In the second part as a window washer/worker bee carrying out unconnected duties (an extremely comic scene shows him washing a window outside of a hotel room for an absurd amount of time); the characters in the room pay no attention and go about their business. The observer and characters intertwined and divided by the glass pane of the window, the observer by default, by necessity of his work; overlooking and invading the physical/personal space of the hotel room. 

The beach too plays the observer as indicated by the title of the film. The beautiful climax in part two offers a form of completion and poetic relief to what appears to be a hopeless predicament of heartbreak and grief. The space created by this film is one of openness and tenderness exploring the fragility of human connection and regret. As viewers we witness an extremely intimate heartfelt scene, we too separated by a screen watching voyeuristically.